The massive music orgy otherwise known as SXSW gets underway in Texas this week: more than 1,300 artists from around the world performing at a crazy variety of venues in Austin over a five-day stretch (you do the math–that’s 260+ acts a day). In salute of this ear-boggling enterprise, all three picks this week come from the really worthwhile storehouse of more than 700 MP3s the SXSW folks have amassed on their website. Here are three of the best ones I’ve come across so far (in addition to the ones featured over the past couple of weeks–namely, Editors and Guillemots).
#807 – Pieta Brown
With great offhand authority, Pieta Brown sounds like Kathleen Edwards taught by Rickie Lee Jones to stand in for Tom Waits; “#807” is all sturdy melody and slinky atmospherics, delivered with a dusky, jazzy sort of smolder. Words are carressed, slightly slurred, Brown’s voice alternating between soft and broken, and yet (here’s the impressive thing) never overwhelming the musical movement. I love the combination of intent and spaciousness created by the interplay between the understated drumming and the forlorn electric guitar (hat’s off to guitarist and co-producer Bo Ramsey), and how Brown lays herself in among them, rather than seek attention histrionically, as so many singers these days appear taught to do. I’m not a fan of generic bluesy-folksy stuff, but the minute I hear a song with a strong sense of its own center like this, I feel rivetted. Daughter of singer/songwriter Greg Brown, Pieta (pronounced pee-ETT-uh) has recorded three CDs to date; “#807” is from her latest, In The Cool, released in September 2005 on Valley Entertainment.
“Breakfast in NYC” – Oppenheimer
Mid-tempo synth-pop enlivened by its splendid juxtaposition of a heavy, drone-propelled beat and sweet soaring vocals. Subtract the synthesizers–both the fuzzy, deep one and the dingly high one–and the song is revealed at its core to be Beach-Boys pure (the very first word, even, is “Summer”), its Brian Wilson-y sing-song verse setting up a heart-bursting hook in the chorus. It’s a hook that packs a grand wallop for almost no apparent reason: the melody takes what sound like joyful leaps both upward and downward that all turn out to be that most pedestrian of intervals, the third. A third is the basic building block of music; all chords are based on thirds. And yet here the interval sounds towering, revelatory–probably due to both the singer’s immaculate tone and the irresistible use of echo harmonies as the thirds alternate achingly between major and minor chords. Ahhhh–just brilliant. Oppenheimer is a duo, first names Shaun and Rocky, from Belfast, Northern Ireland; they are thus far keeping information about themselves close to the vest. I can’t discover, for instance, which one is the lead singer, but I do know that the band’s debut CD is expected out in June on Bar/None Records.
“Hunger” – Nicolai Dunger
A joyous re-working of Van Morrison’s classic sound (ah, if only Van the Man himself hadn’t forsaken this vibe so entirely in recent decades; I miss it, is all). “Hunger” is all free-wheeling drive and shake-it-out passion, complete with warm piano riffs, soulful organ lines, surf-guitar accents (!), and hot horn charts. The wonderful combination of Dunger’s no-holds-barred vocal style and the song’s tumbly energy makes me certain when I say: Give me good over “new” any day of the week. All too many rock music writers, online and otherwise, issue noisy disapproval when they hear “nothing new” in the music of this or that band, but since when is newness a categorical virtue? Quality is the only thing it seems to me we should be paying attention to, and previously unheard sounds do not have the corner market on quality, says me. But I digress. As for Dunger, he was once a promising soccer player on the Swedish national team who was discovered by a producer who happened to walk by as Dunger sang on the balcony of his apartment in the small city of PiteÃ¥, on the Gulf of Bothnia in northern Sweden. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it. Dunger has been recording CDs for European release since 1996; “Hunger” can be found on his latest, entitled Here’s My Song, You Can Have It…I Don’t Want It Anymore, to be released in the U.S. tomorrow on Zoe Records.